by Cem Behar (original Turkish)
Photographs: Caroline Erel
English translation: Phaedon Sinis
Translation advisor: Burcu Karahan Richardson
[Source: Sanat • Kültür • Antika Magazine: Music & Art, Volume 7, Autumn 1997]
Before a musical instrument becomes the voice of a performer, the instrument is the voice of its maker. Before anything else, the instrument carries the signature and seal of the maker, sculptor, and craftsman. This signature is never anonymous, nor is it a generic “brand”. Because each instrument is a unique, “one-of-a-kind” work that is personalized in its making.
This is primarily true for non-metal instruments. Because the materials used in the making of the instrument, which comes alive when given a voice, are themselves alive and organic. The density, texture, grain, life span, aging process and interaction with other materials is different for every type of wood, skin, gut strings, horn, ivory, tortoiseshell, mother-of-pearl, and varnish. The sound of these materials is a reflection of both their own nature and their interaction with each other. One who is not intimately acquainted with these natural materials cannot be a good luthier (instrument maker).
The secrets of the legendary 17th and 18th-century Cremonese violin makers such as Stradivarius, Guarneri, and Amati, lie above all in their knowledge of natural materials. Craftsmanship, experience, dexterity, and workmanship come later. But in the absence of these, there would of course be no mastery over the materials. It is no coincidence that among the prominent makers of Turkish musical instruments, one finds primarily carpenters and varnishers.
There are records about the construction and repair of the instruments of Palace musician-concubines and içoğlans in some 17th-century documents in the archives of Topkapi Palace. For example, a payment record from 1680 documents the construction order for a kemençe with mother-of-pearl inlay, a daire (large tambourine), a miskal (an old Turkish instrument resembling a panflute), and three çöğürs (a type of bağlama saz, or long-necked lute), and the repair of existing instruments. (1) In addition, a box and burlap soft cases were ordered for these instruments’ protection. In the late 18th century, during the time of Selim III, the palace placed orders for musical instruments with master makers in the city.
Unfortunately, the names of these instrument makers and repairmen are not mentioned in related documents. None of the names of musical instrument makers from that time have survived to this day. It is likely that some of the instrumentalists from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries whose names we know were also instrument makers at the same time. Instrument makers, whose names we know for sure and whose instruments we have been able to track, are masters who lived in the second half of the 19th century. And among these, the most famous are oud and kemençe makers. For some reason, instruments of tanbur and kanun makers from the 19th century have not survived. For example, we don’t know the 17th and 18th-century makers of tanbur, an instrument which has been used without interruption for at least three centuries in Turkish music. We only know the names of some 19th-century tanbur makers and have no detailed information about their works. The same is true of the ney.
Very old tanburs and neys are usually not considered even acceptable by performers. In addition, these two instruments are simple in terms of construction, and since they should also remain simple in appearance, they have don’t carry much antique value. Decoration is neither necessary on tanbur nor on the ney.
The idea that these two noble Turkish instruments “can’t handle” decoration is widespread. These two instruments do not withstand engraving, inlay, and other very fine carpentry techniques. According to the general view of performers, these “excesses” ruin the sound quality of tanburs and neys. Because of this, today’s best tanbur makers are considered the best tanbur makers of all time. There are no old, legendary makers for these instruments. Today’s Master Fehmi, Master Turan, and others make the best tanburs.
There is another important reason, regarding these instruments’ history, why the names of old ney and tanbur makers could not survive to this day. Ney and tanbur are the two oldest instruments in classical Turkish music. Their construction and forms that we know today were developed at the beginning of the 17th century. These instruments’ dimensions and standards were already defined at that time; they have reached us from that time almost unchanged. Over three centuries, no significant changes have developed in their construction, and no important luthiers emerged who could leave their mark on improvements. Tanbur makers from recent times such as Ziya Bey of Kumkapı and Onnik Garipyan are remembered not by their contributions to their profession, but rather by their ability to strictly adhere to tanbur construction standards.
The same holds for the ney. Dimensions and standards have been known and fixed for centuries. When the reed that is used is high quality in nature, all that remains is to adhere to the measurements to make the instrument, which is also called “to open the ney.” Therefore, it is also not possible to talk about important ney makers.
The kanun’s place in Turkish music history has had its ups and downs. It is known that there were some kanun players in the mid-17th century in Istanbul, but after that time the kanun fell out of favor and was not used for a long time. It was used only in the Arabic provinces of the Ottoman Empire. Its revival in Turkish music towards the end of the 19th century is attributed to a kanun player named Ömer Efendi of Damascus. It is accepted that the oldest kanuns are the ones made in Damascus and Aleppo. Without a doubt, today’s most famed kanun maker is Master Ejder of Izmir.
However, this is not the case for ud and kemençe. In the past, there have been highly respected makers of these two instruments. And from those makers, very valuable examples of instruments have reached us. We have quite a bit of information about these makers. And without a doubt, the most famous of the old luthiers are oud maker Manol and kemençe maker Baron.
Manol was an instrument maker of Greek origin. He was born in 1845 in Ortaköy. It is assumed that he died around 1915. Manol originally was a varnisher. He learned how to make instruments later on. His master of instrument making is unknown. Manol also made some lavtas, but his fame comes originally from his ouds. It is thought that 20-30 of his ouds have survived to this day. Many of those are in private collections abroad. One of them is in The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It could be said that the market value of Manol ouds today can reach several thousand dollars.
Manol also made some ornate ouds with ivory, tortoiseshell, and mother-of-pearl inlay for members of the palace and wealthy families, but today these are not the most favored of the “Manol ouds.” Because it is accepted that, just as in the case of kemençe, excessive decoration ruins the quality of the oud’s sound.
What is it that makes today’s oud players still say “if only I could have a Manol?”
It is helpful to examine closely some of the technical characteristics of Manol’s ouds. It will be easily understood that these characteristics are not solely due to the oud maker’s technical skill, nor his mastery of fine carpentry.
Manol always made the oud’s body out of walnut. He kept the number of ribs on the back of the body relatively few in number. In contrast to the 24-25 or more ribs on today’s ouds, Manol ouds only had 19 or 21 ribs. Naturally, these ribs are a little bit wider.
There is no difference between the dimensions of Manol ouds and other ouds. Yet, his ouds are lighter than today’s ouds. Manol especially paid attention to this. For example, a block of wood is used in the section where the fingerboard intersects the body. This block, which serves to fasten the fingerboard to the body, is always carved on the inside on Manol ouds; as a result, his ouds were lightened.
Therefore, Manol’s ouds are both easy and smooth to play, and their sound is fuller and rounder due to the relatively larger resonating body. It’s always said that one hears the “string sound” on new ouds and the “wood sound” on Manol ouds.
When making ouds today, luthiers place a high priority on the “decorative” qualities of the wood used for the oud’s soundboard (namely, the section visible while playing). Today, ensuring that the soundboard is attractive with its color and uniformity of grain has become the primary concern.
Whereas Manol’s primary concern was not that the wood is “decorative” but primarily that it is “musical.” “Musical” wood, or tonewood, is generally light. Manol would always make the oud soundboard from spruce, fir, or plum wood. For oud, these are considered more “musical” than other types of wood.
Manol paid close attention to one other aspect of the oud’s soundboard: the grain of woods used for the soundboard must be aligned with the strings passing above the wood. In other words, the grain’s high or low density must be carefully matched with the thickness of the strings and their vibrations. This ensures a balance in the vibration of the wood against thin or thick strings, while also absorbing and eliminating some of the undesirable frequencies in this vibration.
Of course, there’s also a key point in this work which concerns the “braces.” During construction of the oud, before the soundboard is attached to the body, thin strips from the same kind of wood, with a length of a few centimeters, are attached to the underside of the soundboard (the part that would not be visible). These are called “braces”. These braces are generally placed perpendicular to the wood grain of the soundboard.
The key here is the number of “braces” and their placement under the soundboard. It seems that these braces distribute the resonance evenly across the relatively large soundboard of the oud. In each oud, the placement of these braces of course depends on the type of wood used on the soundboard. The crucial point is, of course, the harmony between the soundboard and the placement of the small “braces”. To be able to provide this harmony requires time, skill, experience and knowledge of materials.
Manol’s sons and brothers have also made ouds, but these instruments have never been considered as desirable as “original” Manols. Manol also had apprentices. The most famous of these was Master Mustafa (1885-1935), who actually worked with Manol. There are also others, such as Master Hamza and Mihran Keresteciyan, who did not work directly with Manol, but made ouds similar to Manol’s by creating a mold from his ouds. All of these started their careers as carpenters, sawyers, and furniture makers. Without a doubt, the later period’s most famous oud maker is Master Hadi, who passed away a few years ago.
THE KEMENÇE’S STRADIVARIUS: BARON
The most well-known of Turkish musical instrument makers is Baron. Certainly, the fact that a few of his instruments in recent years have been offered for sale in important auctions, and that they have been sold at high prices, has played a role in Baron’s reputation spreading outside of Turkish music circles.
Baron (originally Parunak or Baronak) was an Armenian carpenter. He was born in Samatya in 1834 and died in Istanbul around 1900. He began his career as a carpenter, and after working in the lumber trade began to make musical instruments. During the time of Sultan Abdülaziz, he took orders from the palace and made tanburs, uds, and lavtas for the palace. (3) But it is the kemençes that he made that are the reason for his lasting reputation. Only 15-20 of Baron’s kemençes have survived to our day.
Kemençe, which today is called “classic kemençe” to distinguish it from the Black Sea kemençe, had no connections to classical fasil music before the end of the 19th century. In fact, the kemençe is a close relative of the lyra, an important instrument in the folklore of Greece, the Aegean islands, and Crete. Up until the start of the 20th century, it was viewed as a “gypsy instrument” and as a “köçekçe ensemble instrument”. It was played in the “kaba saz” (dance music ensembles), and not yet accepted as a more esteemed “ince saz instrument” (used for classical Ottoman music). It is no coincidence that Vasilaki (1845-1907), a Greek gypsy from Silivri, was this instrument’s most important performer at the end of the 19th century.
Two factors, around a century ago, have played a role in the kemençe’s changing function and, over time, reaching today’s status as a respected and serious classical musical instrument: the emergence of important kemençe makers and Tanburi Cemil Bey’s virtuosity.
Famous makers such as “Big Izmitli” and “Little Izmitli,” and especially Baron, revamped this instrument and gave it to us in the form that we know today. Baron was a truly creative luthier who standardized the kemençe’s form, dimensions, and tuning; he also trimmed down this instrument’s pear shape relative to the lyra of the Aegean islands, giving it its “classical” form. And this instrument’s first great performer, Tanburi Cemil Bey, helped this “new” kemençe gain popularity in the market and in Turkish music circles, attaining dignity and prestige, and as a result leading to its regular appearance in classical fasıls.
It is known that, in Tanburi Cemil Bey’s later years, he played almost no tanbur, giving himself completely to the kemençe. It’s also a fact that he earned the admiration of Sultan Abdülhamid for performing at the palace for him. In classical Turkish music circles, there are those who still consider Tanburi Cemil the greatest kemençe performer ever. And those who try to imitate him and acquire his playing technique by listening with great attention to his kemençe taksims on gramophone records are not few in number. Tanburi Cemil’s Baron-made kemençe that he used in most of the kemençe taksims on gramophone records had a name: Andelip (nightingale). “Big Izmitli” and “Little Izmitli”, about whom we know only their nicknames and that they were Greek, were also among the famous kemençe makers of the late 19th century. There is no other information available about them. Only a few of their kemençes have survived to this day. The few kemençes that are known to be made by “Big Izmitli” are somewhat bigger and very decorated compared to others. And those of “Little Izmitli” are inlaid with tortoiseshell and mother-of-pearl. Although their kemençes were very desirable, these two artists’ fame is not as great as that of Baron.
A few types of woods are used in making kemençes, and it is generally accepted that their harmonious combination is the main factor in the development of the kemençe’s strong, profound and soulful sound. Heavy, stiff woods are always chosen for making the instrument’s body. Baron had used woods such as ebony, palisander, black mulberry, rosewood, and juniper for the bodies of his kemençes. The stiffest and most durable woods are essential for the three long tuning pegs which wind the kemençe strings. The pegs on Baron’s kemençes are sometimes made of ivory.
The kemençe’s soundboard is made of Lebanese cedar or a type of cypress that grows in barren moors. Baron always used wood from these trees. He took great care to choose fine-grained Lebanese cedar wood. Lebanese cedar, a fairly oily and soft tree, is very different from Mediterranean cypress. As for trees in the pine family, they do not give an acceptable sound on kemençe. Unfortunately, pine is often used for soundboards of kemençes found on the market today.
As on the oud, the thickness of a kemençe soundboard is not uniform. On kemençe, the center of this wood must be thicker, whereas the edges adjacent to the body must be thinner. Baron, who introduced and established this feature’s standard, gave his kemençe soundboards the exact shape of a weaver’s shuttle profile [a flared shape with thin edges and a wide center]. On Baron’s kemençes, while the center thickness of the soundboard is five millimeters, while the edges can be as thin as one millimeter.
Near the middle of the soundboard is the bridge, which supports the strings. The bridge is also made of maple or juniper. Just under the bridge, as is found on violin, is a soundpost. This 3-3.5 centimeter cylindrical or lightly tapered conical piece of wood is carefully placed between the bottom of the bridge and the base of the body. The soundpost’s placement is of vital importance. One cannot get a good sound from a kemençe whose soundpost is not made of a suitable wood (generally juniper or maple, as found on the bridge) and has not been placed in the most appropriate spot. The form which Baron has given to the soundpost and the location he chose for it in the body also have served as a model for later instrument makers.
Because of its form, kemençe is one of the most amenable of the bowed instruments for decoration. The wood used on both the body and other parts of the instrument is relatively wide and thick, so it is well-suited to painting, inlay, or carving. The most frequently used materials in kemençe decoration are ivory, mother-of-pearl, tortoiseshell, and horn. The body itself, the head, the tuning pegs, and fingerboard are often ornamented with decorative motifs using these materials. However, the sound of highly decorated kemençes whose body is completely covered with mother-of-pearl inlay is not considered agreeable.
Baron chose to solve this confict between decoration and sound by definitively favoring the latter. The most common material we have seen on Baron’s kemençes is ivory. However, in contrast to the preferences of “Little Izmitli” and “Big Izmitli”, Baron generally avoided excessive decoration, and took great care that the valuable materials he used were as functional as they were aesthetic. For example, Baron did not decorate the kemençe’s fingerboard, where the performer’s fingers touch the strings, with ivory or mother-of-pearl inlay or assorted flower motifs. On the contrary, he preferred to cover the entire fingerboard with a solid piece of ivory in order to enable the performer’s fingers to move easily over a smooth surface and to ensure ease during performance.
Ornate Baron kemençes do exist. But it is believed that most of these were decorated with mother-of-pearl or ivory ornaments and motifs later by others. Inlay artist Vasif of Beşiktaş was one of the best-known of these.
Baron had one known apprentice: Vasil. Besides kemençes, Vasil (1875-1915) also made ouds and lavtas, and should not be confused with Kemençeci Vasilaki whom we mentioned above.
Baron was an innovative master luthier who set high standards for kemençe construction, still valid a century later. Just as Tanburi Cemil’s kemençe performances are a model for kemençe players of the 20th century, Baron’s kemençes set an indispensable example for the instrument makers of our century.
(1) İsmail Hakkı Uzunçarşılı, “Osmanlı Zamanında Saraylarda Musıki Hayatı” (The Musical Life in the Palaces of Ottoman Times), Türk Tarih Kurumu, BELLETEN, Volume 41, Number 161, January 1977: 87-88.
(2) I am greatly indebted to the esteemed ud player Necati Çelik for his experience and views on this topic.
(3) M. Nazmi Özalp, Türk Sanat Mûsıkîsi Sazlarından Kemençe (The Kemençe from Turkish Art Music Instruments). Ankara: TRT Publication, 1992.